Horror anthologies historically have proven both tricky to pull off and of a slightly limited appeal. The legend goes that if so much as one single story fails to hold the audience’s attention, then the rest of the film is liable to crash and burn around it. Not surprisingly there are only a few revered classics in the mini-genre, including Romero’s Creepshow and a string of concoctions from Amicus studios in the 1970s (Tales from the Crypt, Asylum). But Dead of Night has a reputation and cult following that outpaces them all. From Britain’s Ealing Studios (more famous for comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob), Dead of Night‘s framing story tells the tale of a man afflicted with a mysterious case of déjà vu when he seems to recognize the inhabitants of a country manor. He’s worried about but unable to vocalize the end of his recurring nightmare, which he claims predicts his present situation. So, comically, the other guests try to calm him with their own tales of dread.
Unlike most other anthologies—which are usually directed by one person—Dead of Night divides its content between four different directors. That the end result is as cohesive and flows as naturally as it does is a testament to the strengths of all its directors. Basil Dearden handled the wraparound segments dealing with the gathering at the manor. The final four minutes of the film, an unbearably chilling whirlpool of madness, is a tour de force depiction of the man’s nightmare. First is the “Haunted Mirror,” about an ancient mirror that reflects its own deadly history. Considering this segment was Robert Hamer’s directorial debut, it is remarkably confident in its depiction of multiple reflections and spatial ambiguities and a prime example of how visual style can overcome weak material to create a uniquely haunting mood. Charles Crichton’s segment, “Golfing Story,” about a gentlemen’s golf bet that ends in suicide and a subsequent haunting, appears between two far scarier stories, and serves to dispel some of the surrounding dread. Even if it is undeniably the film’s weakest link, its placement within the anthology is a thoughtful one and serves as an intermission of sorts.
Cavalcanti’s renowned segment, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” about a ventriloquist haunted into believing his own dummy is out to get him, uses its spare running time to a distressingly scary end. It is unimpeachable in its atmosphere of psychological confusion and also boasts a very tricky timeline (it should be noted that at one point, we’re watching a flashback within a flashback). Thanks to sharp, angular Caligari-inspired sets and a legendary performance from Michael Redgrave as the disturbed vaudeville star, Cavalcanti’s contribution might be the finest single episode to appear in any horror anthology film.